Via Correspondence: Sorcerer
Directed by William Friedkin
Screenplay by Walon Green
Based on the novel Le Salaire de la Peur (also adapted into The Wages of Fear)
Starring Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Amidou.
Music by Tangerine Dream
The Story: A bunch of criminals are on the run and end up in the same backwater, impoverished, South American village. They waste away in hiding, doing odd jobs, drinking, and occasionally getting shaken down by local authorities. In order to make a nice stack of cash to help get out of their predicaments, they take a job transporting dynamite to an oil field 200 miles away to help put out fires. The nitroglycerin from the dynamite is needed, but has also become unstable due to being improperly stored. One bump and the trucks go sky high.
Jason: Oh boy. Years ago, I had seen Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterpiece of tension, The Wages of Fear. I was always aware Sorcerer existed, even when I was a fledgling film fan in high school. I saw Friedkin's The French Connection, loved it, and read a bit about Sorcerer online. It was a huge financial flop that was heavily derided by critics upon its release and that was the last I thought of it. Until recently.
I noticed it had been getting some re-appraisals and its profile among Friedkin's filmography had risen. It recently got a shiny new Blu-Ray transfer release and played at TIFF's Bell Lightbox movie theatre in Toronto (where I caught it last Friday).
Normally, I'm all for letting people's taste be their own thing, but I am absolutely floored that this didn't connect with people in the 70s. Stylistically, it is frenetic but tightly woven between stories. There is no real rush to get to the main crux of the story, but the background is rich and varied giving enough reason to connect with these men and their struggles both externally and internally. And the central conceit of the film, and how Friedkin and company play with sound and the camera create an exhilarating experience I haven't felt from an action movie in some time. I'm sure we'll get into specifics, but I first want to know if you fall in line more with the critics of 30+ years ago, or if you're more with me on this one.
Isaac: I really enjoyed it. It's hard to imagine why it got such a sour response. Maybe it's because the movie was released in an era when Hollywood was making one ground-breaking classic after another and this one got lost in the shuffle. Or maybe people had a hard time reconciling the title with the lack of wizards in the film.
I thought it had everything going for it. It's fast paced and exciting. I yelled at my TV more than once, which is always a good sign I'm enjoying myself. It's smart and surprising. I enjoyed the way the chaotic moments often erupted out of nowhere. It delivers thrills and explosions without holding your hand or sacrificing story. It's a serious, big budget Hollywood movie for grown-ups. Something you're not likely to find among the watered down, focus grouped, bullshit, derp-de-derp garbage that Hollywood churns out today.
I haven't seen the original adaptation, Wages of Fear, so I can't say how it compares. Maybe that comparison has something to do with the poor reception of Sorcerer. Either way, I thought it stood on its own as a great work of art. Friedkin has a great gift for mixing pop entertainment with art-house sensibilities. The French Connection and The Exorcist are two other stunning examples of this. I loved the way the pace of the film was simultaneously drawn out and break neck quick. It almost played out like a connection of interwoven short stories and the first and last half hour are pretty much wall to wall action.
Jason: The opening half-hour introducing the four main characters and their backgrounds was not in The Wages of Fear. This is a huge benefit to Sorcerer in a couple ways. One, it definitively sets it apart from its predecessor. And two, it provides a reason to get invested. The various prologues, interesting short stories in their own right as you mentioned, set the stage with minimal exposition but a lot of information. All you have to do is pay attention.
It's wonderfully relentless in what follows. There are very few moments of respite because even before these guys hit the road in bombs-on-wheels there is a very clear danger afoot. Why else would they take the risk? Sure, money is nice, but unless there is a palpable fear underneath them it's not one worth taking. The village is hell on earth. This can be seen by how incredibly sweaty and filthy everyone is from moment to moment. The fires in the oil field and the anger at the burned bodies when they're returned only exacerbate this. The tone, even before the most impressive sequences, is one of utter despair and hopelessness. This is possibly another reason why it fared poorly at the time. It lacked any semblance of a sunny disposition, save maybe a twinge of sarcastic repartee.
Isaac: That strain of hopelessness definitely permeates throughout the film. Each character's introduction scene also serve's as their swan song. Each character is plucked from their lives and forced on the run. The problem is, escape is never the safest place. The shit-hole South American refuge they find themselves in offers nothing but more danger and dead ends. The characters are basically dead men from the moment they walk on screen. They've all lost their families, friends and livelihoods. They've escaped with their lives, but at what cost? Now these formerly powerful men are reduced to back-breaking labour and constantly have to look over their shoulders. They're all probably worse off than if they had stayed home and bit the bullet.
As you said, It's a great way to set up the suicide mission that acts as the crux of the film. I never wondered why these characters were risking their lives transporting explosives so unstable that the slightest bump would be their doom, because it's made so clear that these men have nothing to lose. Death might even be a welcome distraction to these characters who are forced to live inside their own mental prisons. I liked that these in depth struggles of the characters are evident without any long speeches or scenes of private breakdowns. In fact, the script does very little peering inside of the character's heads. It's the acting that sells the emotions. The small tells, subtle reactions and expressive faces of the actors convey all the emotion necessary. We talked about this kind of acting last time with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Maybe it impresses me so much because it's so rare these days for an actor to be allowed to emote without exposition and long winded speeches. It seems to me that filmmakers used to trust their audiences a lot more than they do now.
Jason: The actors do so much without speaking. It's a testament to their skills but also a script that doesn't hold anyone's hand. Knowing their limited biographies must have helped them figure out who they were playing and they were able to focus more on physical presence to inform the viewer where they're coming from.
I like that it's a movie that never shies away from being dark and filthy. As they hit the road and the obstacles pile up their clothes get rattier and the dirt piles up on their faces. And it's exhilarating. Take the unforgettable scenes where they try to get the two trucks across the rickety bridge. It's almost nauseating watching the bridge sway and the trucks inch across, one man out front and one man in the cab. It's a perfectly constructed moment. Think of the sounds. The wind picks up. The planks creak and crack hinting at extreme peril that isn't just a risk, but an inevitability. Then the camera moves sharply. The cuts become quicker but the camera also lingers. When Kassem falls through into the river below and the sound cuts out as his head bobs beneath the current, it's a shocking moment.
What's interesting is how these men also get a charge of excitement from it. In addition to their intense fear, they're also thrilled by it all. All four of the men in the trucks thrived under the pressure of their previous lives rolling the dice against the law. Instead of the police and authorities breathing down their necks, it's fate, chance, and probability. While there is no titular sorcerer (other than the label painted on one of the trucks), it's almost like a spell is cast over their journey. And it's not exactly a friendly one.
Isaac: The bridge scene was crazy! That was when I did most of my yelling at the TV. This kind of “one false move and we’re dead” storyline is pretty common in thrillers but usually you have a sense of which characters are safe and which ones are expendable. You’re thrilled as the hero walks the tightrope but in the back of your head, you know they’re not in any actual danger. This film is so steeped in chaos and doom that I really felt it could go either way. Maybe no one would make it.
I loved the way the danger kept piling on. From the unstable dynamite to interferences from nature, pirates and geography, once the journey starts there is no letting up on the tension. The characters also have to deal with each other (a group of hardened criminals aren't always going to get along) as well as their own internal battles. Wikipedia described this film as an “existential thriller”, and when I saw that I thought oh no, this is going to be a chore, but the existentialism is played so subtly that you can explore it if you choose or you can just sit back and be thrilled by explosions, car chases, and gunfire. It works as a two hour distraction and it works as a powerful piece of cinematic art.
The more I think about it, the crazier it is that this movie was so poorly regarded. I’ve read that it was considered to have started the downfall of auteur Hollywood that Heaven’s Gate finished. It almost (or did, depending on how you look at it) ruined Friedkin’s career, when it’s just as good a movie, just as crowd pleasing yet cerebral as his more well-known work.
One thing that struck me as kind of funny: the element I found the most dated and hard to swallow was that the banker, Victor, was in so much danger of serving jail time that he had to flee the country. Anyone who's followed the ever-growing modern banking crimes such as the HSBC or Bank of America scandals and their “too big for jail” outcomes knows how ludicrous and unrealistic the idea is today of a banker actually paying for their crimes. Oh, Paris in the 1970s, what a magical, different time you must have been.
Jason: Absolutely! If only corrupt bankers would shake in fear of prosecution now!
Helping wrap the whole package together is the score by Tangerine Dream (who also did the soundtracks to Near Dark and, more recently, Grand Theft Auto V). The music is definitely of its era but never feels awkward or out of place. It carries a pounding foreboding, providing an extra layer of the menace at hand.
In a movie like this, the peril has to feel legitimate. There is no one villain, but a bevy of threats. At the drop of a hat it always feels like anyone could bite it. This is something Friedkin was no stranger to. In his 1985 film To Live and Die in LA he throws some curves at the audience's expectations again in ways that set it apart from a traditional thriller. The risk is real, and no one is safe. And the dread doesn't evaporate, even when the end credits begin to roll.
Isaac's pick is an Alfred Hitchcock flick neither of us have seen called I Confess. Join the conversation in the comments section. Recommend movies for us there as well.